Saturday 17 August 2019

Government gears up to battle Boris on Border claims

Fighting back: Tánaiste Simon Coveney sounded a warning. Photo: PA Wire
Fighting back: Tánaiste Simon Coveney sounded a warning. Photo: PA Wire

The Government is gearing up for an almighty battle with Boris Johnson over the backstop, insisting it cannot be dumped.

Over the coming weeks, ministers are to very publicly reject the idea Ireland will cave into the new British prime minister's demands amid last-minute fears of a no-deal Brexit.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney started the fightback yesterday with a series of UK media appearances, including one where he said: "If the approach of the new British PM is to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement then we're in trouble.

"It's a little like saying 'give me what I want or I'm going to burn down the house for everybody'."

The Irish blitz is supported by EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and top diplomats who believe it would up "unfair" to offer the new prime minister a better deal than Theresa May got.

And in an interview with the Irish Independent, Germany's ambassador to Ireland Deike Potzel said there will be no pressure from her country for the backstop to be watered down.

"I do not see any sign for that and I never have," she said. "Before the chancellor [Angela Merkel] came here to meet the Taoiseach in April there was a lot of speculation that she would tell him exactly that. But she didn't, not at all.

"On the contrary she came out again very clearly pro the position of Ireland and supported you there. I don't see any shifting in that."

The result of the Conservative Party leadership contest will be announced tomorrow but it is widely anticipated Boris Johnson will beat Jeremy Hunt for the top job.

Mrs May will meet Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday before handing over the keys to Downing Street.

Further political turmoil is likely with British finance minister Philip Hammond revealing yesterday that he will resign if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister.

Mr Hammond said he is unable to support a leader happy to take the country out of the EU without a deal.

He said his fears over a no deal forced him to vote against the government for the first time in his 22-year political career last week.

Both of the potential leaders have argued during the campaign that the backstop will have to be dropped from the Withdrawal Agreement - but Mr Johnson has promised to take the UK out of the EU at Halloween regardless of how negotiations go.

However, Mr Coveney told the Irish Independent that is not an option for the EU. "We cannot have a situation towards the end of Brexit negotiations where a new British prime minister makes demands that are totally contrary to the commitments, the government he's been part of, for the past three years, has made.

"And at the same time (he) expects to be accommodated by the EU. That's not going to happen," the Tánaiste said.

"So, everyone wants to work this through in a way that voids a no-deal Brexit and all the damage that comes from that, not just from a trade perspective but from a political perspective, in particular on this island.

"But we have to be realistic as well in terms of the challenges we are facing and it involves compromise on both sides and that's why we are so protective of the Withdrawal Agreement."

The one variance on the backstop the EU is willing to consider is that it would apply only to Northern Ireland.

This was the original plan but it was extended to a UK-wide measure after Mrs May came under pressure from the DUP, which props up the Conservative government.

The DUP remains opposed to the backstop in any form and their leader Arlene Foster yesterday criticised Mr Coveney for claiming a no-deal scenario on October 31 would be a "British choice".

She said she was "disappointed, but not surprised" by what he had said, and accused him of trying to "look tough" in the eyes of the incoming prime minister. She said the Withdrawal Agreement was bad for the North "and we're looking to change that".

Irish Independent

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